Tanvi Misra is a staff writer for CityLab covering immigrant communities, housing, economic inequality, and culture. She also authors Navigator, a weekly newsletter for urban explorers (subscribe here). Her work also appears in The Atlantic, NPR, and BBC.
The crowd-funded project would make a place in Lebanon where these displaced youths can be kids again.
The importance of playing outside for early child development is well-documented. For kids living in refugee camps around the world, who have experienced severe psychological trauma as a result of war and displacement, playgrounds are even more crucial. They are safe, stable, happy spaces in an otherwise chaotic world. But access to playgrounds often remains a distant dream for many refugee children.
Take the case of Lebanon. Refugees fleeing the conflict from neighboring Syria have overwhelmed Lebanese cities in recent years. According to latest UNHCR estimates, the country currently houses more than 1.1 million displaced people; more than 400,000 are school-aged children. According to a 2014 Save The Children report, 80 percent of Syrian refugee kids in Lebanon are not enrolled in school. Many are turned away from local schools that just don’t have the capacity.
The Lebanese government doesn’t officially recognize the refugee settlements, so building permanent schools (and adjoining playgrounds) for them is difficult. But in Bar Elias, a town located in the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon which has the highest number of Syrian refugees, some non-profits have found creative ways around these obstacles.
In 2014, the Kayany Foundation, in partnership with the Community Development and Projects unit at the American University of Beirut, obtained a permit to construct portable schools for Lebanon’s refugee children to attend. They’ve already built three of these, serving 17 informal settlements in the region. A part of this project, led by non-profit design organization called Catalytic Action, is now focusing on constructing a playground that can be easily assembled and deconstructed, made from discarded materials found in the settlement.
“The first step ... is bringing education,” Riccardo Conti, executive director of Catalytic Action tells CityLab. “The second step would be to offer the children a space to just be children.”
Conti and his colleagues visited the Telyani settlement in the Bar Elias twice, and conducted workshops with the kids there to engage them in the planning process. The ideas about playgrounds they heard from these kids weren’t much different from ones you’d get from children anywhere else in the world. Here’s how the non-profit summarizes these visions in a blog post:
The games/activities that were suggested by the most children were: swings, slides, balls, seesaws, jump-ropes and elastic cords. The environment that was most recurrent among the children’s ideas was a green space with flowers and trees; a place where they can play with their friends and relax. The sun was shining in their images even though sometimes clouds are depicted.
During their visits to refugee settlements in Bar Elias, Conti and their colleagues also noticed interesting recycling practices around the camps, which they found very inspiring. “When you live in a situation like this, people become creative,” says Conti. “We wanted to include that component into the design component of the playground.” The infograph below shows some of the interesting ways refugees used discarded and broken materials:
Using all the information it gathered, Catalytic Action has set out to design the refugee playground, and hopes to complete it by the end of this summer. (The flow diagram below shows the timeline of the project, with the steps toward completing the playground in navy blue.) The organization is crowd-funding their project mostly through an Indiegogo campaign. But Conti says that apart from money, there’s also a need for volunteer architect and planners who want to help in the construction process.
So if you were looking for a reason to book that flight to Beirut, you just found a great one.